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John De Andrea’s “Self-Portrait with Sculpture” (1980) (image courtesy Ruben Cordova/edited by Jasmine Weber for Hyperallergic)

Curator and art historian Ruben Cordova thought that Facebook was the perfect platform to archive the photographic materials equivalent to almost a decade’s worth of his research. He created a network of albums, links, commentaries, and comparanda online, sometimes using those resources for his lectures at universities and galleries. This abundance of scholarship even included materials necessary for Cordova’s forthcoming publication.

But disaster struck in the early morning of November 16. That day, Cordova received an upsetting message from Facebook: the social media company had permanently disabled his account due to an alleged violation of community standards banning sexually explicit content. And with that, Cordova lost access to 9 years’ worth of aggregated resources and materials.

According to Cordova, the Facebook algorithm instantly identified the nude woman in John De Andrea’s hyperrealistic “Self-Portrait with Sculpture” (1980) as a living human being. “I was deemed guilty by the algorithm, and the human ‘moderator’ did not override its decision,” Cordova commented to Hyperallergic via email.

One of the 16 photos of John De Andrea’s “Self-Portrait with Sculpture” (1980) that got Ruben Cordova permanently banned from Facebook (image courtesy Ruben Cordova)

The Facebook ban caught Cordova off-guard because the image of De Andrea’s sculpture was just one of about 240 pictures he uploaded from the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s popular Like Life: Sculpture, Color, and the Body exhibition at the Met Breuer in early 2018. Moreover, the images of “Self-Portrait” that he uploaded included a link to the museum website, which would presumably allow a human moderator to fact-check Cordova’s appeal against his ban. And when the art historian did try to appeal Facebook’s decision, he found that none of his messages reached the social media giant through his computer, receiving multiple error messages instead. He did receive a very short message from the company, however, when he contacted them through his Kindle.

“During my time on Facebook, I have posted many thousands of images of sculptures (some of them nude),” Cordova wrote. “But of all these sculptures, only the De Andrea was blocked by Facebook. This must have been because his nude figure is realistically painted and has a human wig, causing the algorithm to read it as a picture of an actual human.”

The curator says that this was not the first time his image of De Andrea’s sculpture caught Facebook’s eye. On November 13, a human moderator contacted Cordova about the image, but then recognized that it was a sculpture and fully restored his account. Three days later, another moderator must have mistaken “Self-Portrait” for a photo of real people, subsequently shuttering Cordova’s account.

Facebook is no stranger to censorship controversies. In 2016, Hyperallergic reported that the company had censored a photo of Copenhagen’s famous “The Little Mermaid” statue, which is ironically the Danish country’s most photographed sculpture. And back in 2013, Hyperallergic itself was censored by Facebook for posting an article that included artist Kate Durbin’s photograph of a woman’s exposed backside. And more recently in August 2018, we reported that the company had censored a Montreal Museum of Fine Art advertisement featuring one of Pablo Picasso’s painted cubist nudes.

News of Cordova’s banishment has spread across academic circles as a warning against art historians and artists who might want to aggregate their research on Facebook’s platform. Véronique Plesch, an art professor at Colby College in Maine, found the news especially upsetting. “This is an extremely disturbing situation for all of us in the art world,” she told Hyperallergic via email.

Hyperallergic reached out to the Met for comment but received no formal reply concerning Cordova’s censorship case against Facebook.

Artist John De Andrea also did not respond to Hyperallergic’s request for comment before publication of this article.

Some of Facebook’s guidelines for adult material in advertising (screenshot by Hyperallergic)

What sets Cordova’s censorship case apart from the others listed is his use of banned images for educational purposes. Unlike Facebook’s advertisement guidelines, which explicitly greenlight nude sculpture, the website’s community standards make no distinction between art and obscene images. However, Facebook does specifically state that “restrictions on the display of sexual activity also apply to digitally created content unless it is posted for educational, humorous, or satirical purposes.”

The last sentence of the company’s adult nudity and sexual activity guidelines also state: “We also allow photographs of paintings, sculptures, and other art that depicts nude figures.”

One can only surmise how the Facebook censorship algorithm can both prioritize nude sculpture while mitigating its gender bias toward nude males vis-à-vis nude females in art. The website’s censorship of De Andrea’s sculpture also hints toward Facebook’s bias against nipples, which many corners of the internet have previously investigated.

One of the 16 photos of John De Andrea’s “Self-Portrait with Sculpture” (1980) that got Ruben Cordova permanently banned from Facebook (image courtesy Ruben Cordova)

“The algorithm convicted me because the sculpture I photographed was too real. As is evident from the above, there is little recourse for appeal,” Cordova lamented. “One Facebook hand does not know what the other is doing, and I have been dealt a brutal verdict that is at odds with Facebook’s own written standards of conduct.”

And if Facebook reverses its decision, will Cordova return to the platform? “Yes, I absolutely want to stay,” he tells Hyperallergic. “I want my account back, and I want to continue posting. I have made numerous excellent contacts through Facebook. Many people respond to Facebook messages, but not to emails! Right now, I am unable to contact most of the people I know personally because their phones or email addresses have changed.”

But most importantly, Cordova is looking for a way to salvage the last 9 years of research he has uploaded to the website.

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Zachary Small

Zachary Small was the senior writer at Hyperallergic and has written for The New York Times, The Financial Times, The Nation, The Times Literary Supplement, Artforum, and other publications. They have...

23 replies on “Facebook Censors Art Historian for Posting Nude Art, Then Boots Him from Platform”

  1. Seems to me the problem is not the censoring & banning, but Facebooks lack of response. All the tech companies are following the same route – easy to enroll, hard to get hold of, and almost impossible to cancel. Try cancelling your mobile phone account (in South Africa). Endless obstacles are placed in your way.

    Most of these companies resources are spent on increasing memberships, very little (by comparison) on customer care. Reason being that at some point too much is invested by the user to find an alternative. Cordova is a case in point – in spite of Facebooks atrocious handling of the issue, he’ll still make use of it.

    1. I don´t know why people choose to think of these for-profit huge companies as some sort of public utility. Your blog, your work does not interest them in the least outside of how they can use your posts to make money for themselves. Don´t be stupid artists and collectors. In creating a new site just yesterday we began to discuss alternatives to the FB-Instagram conglomerate for client and audience building. Its hard right now but we have it in our plan to switch off from FB as soon as there is a viable alternative, and to carefully use the site to only give viewers a taste and channel them to our main content.

      Archivists and bloggers buy your own domains and server space – its cheap and easy – use FB-Instagram and whomever as adjuncts but realise please they are profit making companies who have no obligation to preserve or enhance your work. And they can change at any moment, delete everything, go out of business, switch focus and regulations – this is what you are agreeing to. Please do not be such fools. I am sure in the flesh and blood world of galleries and museums you are not such idiots as to entrust your work and collections to places with contracts that entitle them to profit from your stuff and destroy it or manipulate it at will.

      1. no argument there… it’s really unbelievably naive that someone will actually use FB as an archive and/or a repository (almost wrote suppository lol) for their life’s work! Jeez, use WordPress, or any of the dozens of free blogsites. Anyway, I hope he does manage to get his work back, and I really really hope he doesn’t repeat his mistake…

  2. I’m the owner of the John de Andrea since it was first shown in New York, 1980. The sculpture was created to be purchased by the Whitney Museum, but was rejected for being too explicit. Thirty eight years later, it finally made it into the Breuer! The work has traveled extensively in the US and has been shown in Asia and Europe. In 1989 the Little Rock Center of the Arts, put a toga on the model, which made headlines for censuring art. My guess, they did it to protect her from the governor at the time. Facebook also rejected my posting several weeks earlier. “Self Portrait with Sculpture” is now at the Munich Kunsthalle in an exhibition titled, “The Thrill of Deception”.

  3. Facebook’s algorithms are a thread to every art blogger and artist. I know many who suffer from this. I myself have been banned many times because of it, often for ill reasons, and there’s no possibility to reject (in my case the option is greyed out). My last ban was for 30 days because of this horrific nude:
    https://bit.ly/2P7hIiF

  4. Facebook actually censored an Anne Frank WWII memorial website (the Frank official museum’s site). It took days to get it restored. Also censored the famous Vietnam napalm burn victim shot that changed so much opinion about the war. And FB has a much more critical eye (if that even sounds possible) for nudity from races and cultures it doesn’t understand. It claims to be addressing these issues but just educating their moderators would go a long way an FB doesn’t really try. I use the platform only sparingly… A few minutes per week to touch base with relatives, etc. It will never have more than sparse grudging patronage from me as long as they cannot understand the difference between a breastfeeding mom or the Coppertone baby and that which objectified or expoits God’s perfect creation.

  5. FB knows everything about you, the user and can get in touch with you in an instant. However, to the user ( AKA: FB’s product), FB is opaque, stealth, unreachable, unaccountable. But hey, continue to love the platform, because you know FB has your very best interests at heart.

  6. Oh come on, tell me he didn´t have his archives saved on a local hard drive also…you have got to be incredibly dumb to use facebook – a social media platform – as an actual archive. Social media means just that – it is a means to communicate between people. It is by no self definition an archival storage facility.

    1. Many people do not have even a vague idea about how the technology or the related businesses operate. And a sketchy outfit like FB is not going to tell them.

      1. That is why google exists. You read up on it and create lasting solutions for your archives, to be promoted in whatever platform and media is appropriate. Get a 4 TB drive for under $100 USD, configure it for both Mac and PC, get a back up drive cuz things break, 1 nice computer and voila, you have an archive place. Then set up your site with your own domain and server space to communicate to the world. Only about 1,000 google responses to “how to set up my website”.

        You don´t count on the used car salesmen to check out whether a particular vehicle is what you want or need…how come peoples´ seemingly great brains freeze up when it comes to the internet – created by humans to be used wisely by humans of which artists and technophobes are a subset.

        1. For many people, your first paragraph would be completely incomprehensible. As someone who knows something about the technology, I’ve been called upon several times now to ‘rescue’ or restore web sites. The owners had no idea how they worked or where their data was. Computers require an odd kind of thinking which some people can do and others can’t, apparently. It doesn’t mean they’re stupid; there seem to be dozens of different kinds of intelligence. One of those whose sites I restored was a professor of mathematics who was certainly capable of understanding the concepts. This didn’t keep him from completely wiping out his web site through the good offices of a file transfer program.

          In general, computers. hardware and software, (except for cell phones) are mostly poorly designed and hard for non-specialists to use. It took the automobile industry about 20 years to come up with a vehicle almost anybody could drive. We’ve had stored-program computers for almost 80 years, they’re still hard for many people to use, and the businesses which supply them and supply services through them are still full of con artists and incompetents.

  7. It’s never too late to educate yourself on matters tech. Relying on a private firm like FB is simply not a good idea! For years I fostered a comedic entity on FB for my friends and family as “Snappy McMartin,” until FB told me I had to use my real name. Apparently according to their algorithm bots, fake names on the internet was a new tool (hold your laughter, please) for criminals and pedophiles. The bottom line is FB is a business that wants to be popular around the world, and the world is full of shitty places that censor the human body. But apparently fake news is ok with Zuckerberg.

    1. The alternative to ‘fake news’, that is, the vaunted ‘free marketplace of ideas’, which we’ve had in the U.S. since December 15, 1791 at least, is some kind of authoritarian control of media, as in China or the bad old days of the Soviet Union, and many other places. But pressure is being applied to Mr. Zuckerberg to provide just that kind of environment, so maybe those who desire it will get what they want.

  8. The Nude is an important theme in European Art. So I was surprised when I wanted to promote the exhibition ‘Melancholia’ at the Boghossian Foundation Brussels and had chosen a picture by Paul Delvaux from the exhibition it was refused by Facebook and Instagram. It’s time that Europe develops social media that protects and promote our Greek-Roman heritage.

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